Saturday, February 08, 2020

Nikita Koshkin's 24 Preludes and Fugues: Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor

This has become one of my favorite preludes and fugues in the entire cycle because of the passacaglia. The fugue is also pretty cool but the passacaglia is one of Koshkin's most compelling creations in his long career.  I admit to the bias of having admired Koshkin's music for twenty years so without further ado, the discussion starts after the break.


The prelude is a passacaglia and it’s fitting that among 24 preludes and fugues that one of the preludes would be a passacaglia.  For those not already familiar with this tradition of continuous variation writing, there is a ground bass (typically) over which and against which variations are composed.  With Koshkin’s prelude in C sharp minor we see this principle at work alongside another formal principle, that as the passacaglia moves along more voices are added to the texture of the work until it reaches a climax.  Rhythms become busier and tighter and harmonies that emerge around the ground become more complex while the ground bass moves along implacably.

This particular ground bass could be thought of as an almost Baroque variant on the Andalusian cadence: C# and B in half notes, A with dotted half note, G# and A in eighth notes, E and F# in quarter notes, and G# on a half note for the simple three-measure ground.  The ground needs to be just complex enough to inspire interest but simple enough to bear the weight of increasing complexity through addition of voices and alteration of harmony.  Koshkin succeeds admirably here, writing a passacaglia that some might say evokes J. S. Bach but which I say evokes the macabre passacaglias of the Shostakovich string quartets whose music, let Koshkin fans remember, has always been one of the key influences on Koshkin’s compositional style (another being Stravinsky).

In a total of 22 statements of the ground the variations from statements 2 to 9 are written in just two voices, one solo line floating above the ground (starts at 0:13).  Although the melodic writing is languid and spacious Koshkin uses a fair amount of cross-bar line suspension and syncopation, avoiding he pulse of steady eighth note figuration until statement 5 of the ground bass (0:38). 

By statement 10 of the ground bass Koshkin introduces his second voice above the ground (1:30).  By statement 11 these two voices start having a give and take in chromatically interweaving lines. By statement 12 there’s a steady pulsating eighth note chromatic melodic line in the inner voice while the soprano line ascends in half note values to a high point in the music at measure 35 (1:42).

At measure 43 (1:55) Koshkin begins to build to the dramatic climax of his passacaglia by introducing three-voiced chords above the ground, finally introducing a four-voice texture pulsing along in eighth note chords as the ground moves steadily on.  It is in this section where Koshkin’s passacaglia most reminds me of Shostakovich. That’s statement 14 of the ground and statement 15 introduces a variation on the pulsing eighth note chords, a kind of Arvo Part style tintinabuli chorale keening away on the tonic minor triad and working toward the introduction of a fifth voice.

The fifth voice is easier to see in the score than hear in performance because Koshkin adds a full six-note texture by way of rolling chords at measure 46 (2:13). At 2:24 Koshkin calls for a fortissimo C# minor chord (2:24) that briefly interrupts the passacaglia ground with a staccato burst answered by the half note B natural and harmonics.  As a general rule passacaglias add voices to the texture as the work builds up and expands steadily outward in terms of overall compass.  Here Koshkin’s twelfth fret harmonics are almost as far from the low B natural as he can get but he’ll keep gently pushing the distance between high and low through the passacaglia before he gently winds things down.  Statements 17-20 call for continuous natural and artificial harmonics and necessarily thinned down textures of just one or two notes against the ground. 

At the statement 20 of the ground (3:07) Koshkin has dropped harmonics and returned to ordinary notes to start bringing the prelude to a close with a return to the spacious two-voiced interweaving lines he introduced earlier.  In statement 22 of the ground, at measures 66-67 (3:20) Koshkin interrupts the flow of the ground with a prolongation of its turnaround phrase.  E and F# are held for half-note values and then lead not to G sharp but to a fulsome G major seventh chord.  He then moves to a B flat minor seventh harmony and a descending melody at measure 68 that resolves to a second inversion F major chord with an A natural in the upper voice at measure 69, which, in turn, contracts into a simple block chord C sharp minor triad in root position that ends this prelude.

All of that is a technical description of what goes on in the passacaglia.  What that doesn’t convey is the Shostakovich-style pathos of this prelude, which I think is one of the finest preludes in the cycle, possibly one of the finest things Koshkin has ever composed in his long career.  Asya Selyutina does a fantastic job of bringing this wonderful passacaglia to life and if someone were to wish to try to play just a single prelude or fugue from the entire cycle this passacaglia prelude in C sharp minor would be one of the pieces I would suggest. 


The fugue subject is a simple chromatically embellished C sharp minor triad that rises with decoration from an augmented fourth and a leading tone as it rises from a lower C# to a higher C#.  From this brief ascent the third and final measure of the subject descends through natural minor and prepares for a real answer in the second voice at G# (0:07).  The third voice enters at 0:12 and we have a straightforward ascent from tenor, alto to soprano. There are no countersubjects but this fugue exposition is not quite as simple as I’ve described.

Starting at 0:17 (measure 90) Koshkin shifts from the officially score meter of 4/4 to a modulating episode that is in 3/4.  Where the subject has been clear in line it has an ambiguity in rhythm, one Koshkin immediately exploits by having several triple meter episodes derived from his common time beginning.  At 0:26 (measure 65) he shifts by deceptive cadence into an A major chord that kicks off a quasi-stretto episode in triple meter that goes through measure 89.  At measure 89 (0:34) there’s a brief interrupting passage of duple meter before triple meter returns at measure 92. 

The first middle entry is not introduced for some time.  At measure 96 (0:47) there is an episode in E minor that has a stretto based on a two-measure form of the subject. The first time a middle entry with the full three-measure subject appears is at 1:05 in E flat major. Besides playing extensively with triple meter Koshkin makes liberal use of false entries that suggest middle entries without completing the subject.  At 1:08 when he has finally presented the subject in full for a middle entry he returns to triple meter episodes. This stretch of counter-meter is shorter; at 1:17 (measure 111 there is a stretto episode in A minor that leads quickly to the formal climax of the fugue at 1:21 (measure 113 where C sharp minor is reached. 

From 1:25 forward Koshkin winds down the fugue with another waltzing passage that goes on until the end of measure 122 (1:42), a sustained A major seventh chord with the G sharp in the upper voice.  A florid descending solo passage dives down to the lower range of the guitar before rising up to a set of chords at 1:53-1:56—A minor with an added major seventh and a ninth,  E major with an augmented fifth, and then C sharp minor.  The fugue comes to a close with a statement of the subject against a quasi-inversion from 1:56 to the final measure. The closing chords are of interest, F minor to D major to a fourth outlining C sharp minor but without the third factor of the chord.  While Koshkin’s writing is almost invariably tonal his harmony is rarely steadily common practice.  More detailed analysis of his approach to harmony might benefit from a neo-Reimannian approach such as Richard Cohn’s work in Audacious Euphony (Oxford University Press, 2012).

I have given a fairly bare description of what happens in this prelude and fugue which doesn’t convey the drama and pathos of the passacaglia or the paradoxical playfulness of the following fugue.  The prevalence of triple meter episodes in this fugue gives it a sly and mercurial quality that would be easy to miss if you were just looking at the notes on the page without being attentive to phrasing and melodic patterns.  This is one of the most appealing of the preludes and fugues but it has its challenges, as all of the preludes and fugues in this cycle do.  

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